California chief judge Cantil-Sakauye won't seek reelection

Sacramento appeals court justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye enters a news conference after being unanimously confirmed to become the state's next chief justice in San Francisco, California August 25, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
  • Top judge will step down in January after 12-year term
  • Judge pushed for diversity, court funding
  • Penned key rulings on death penalty, class actions

(Reuters) - California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye announced on Wednesday that she will not seek re-election this year, bringing a three-decade judicial career to a close after 12 years as the largest U.S. state's top judge.

Cantil-Sakauye, 62, said in a statement released by the court that she will step down on Jan. 1 after a tenure marked by vocal advocacy for diversity in the legal profession, increased court funding and expanded access to the courts for low-income people.

The California Supreme Court's seven justices are nominated by the governor for 12-year terms and must be confirmed by voters during general elections. The chief justice oversees California's massive state court system and its $5.2 billion budget.

Cantil-Sakauye, who was nominated in 2010 by former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one of five justices whose terms end this year.

Cantil-Sakauye, who is of Filipino descent, is the 28th chief justice of California and the first person of color and second woman to hold the post. She became a judge in 1990 when former Republican governor George Deukmejian appointed her to Sacramento municipal court.

Before ascending to the bench, she worked as an assistant district attorney in Sacramento and as a staffer for Deukmejian.

In a statement, Cantil-Sakauye said California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, "will have a diverse pool of exceptionally well qualified jurists and legal professionals to choose from, and I believe the judiciary, the courts, and access to justice in California will be in good hands."

Cantil-Sakauye was a longtime Republican but switched her registration to independent in 2018. She told nonprofit news service CalMatters at the time that the decision was spurred by Senate confirmation hearings for now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh garnered support from Republicans amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted a high school classmate. He denied the claims.

Cantil-Sakauye penned a number of high-profile decisions for the California Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling that upheld a state law providing for speedier executions of death row inmates and a 2014 decision that allowed images captured by traffic cameras to be used as evidence in prosecuting drivers.

In a 2016 opinion in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co v. Superior Court, Cantil-Sakauye said plaintiffs who do not reside in California can join class actions filed in the state's courts. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2017, narrowing the scope of many product liability lawsuits filed in state courts.

Cantil-Sakauye also guided the state court system through the COVID-19 pandemic and pushed the Trump administration to end its practice of arresting immigrants in the U.S. illegally inside California courthouses.

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.